Jim Zorn views the final preseason game not as the end of an interminable training camp but rather as a last chance for fringe players to show why they belong on the 53-man roster.
Which is why the Washington Redskins coach is excited about his team’s exhibition finale against the Jaguars on Thursday in Jacksonville.
Zorn wants to see how quarterbacks Colt Brennan and Chase Daniel perform, finalize the kicking position and assess the progress of the reserve offensive linemen and linebackers since the opener three weeks ago.
Most of all, he wants to see whether his staff’s observations are confirmed or their minds changed.
“That’s why we play this game - because there are some decisions that will be based on this,” Zorn said. “Maybe you get a confirmation: ‘You know what, I was right about this.’ Or maybe [a player] will perform at a different level that will change the complexity of [the decision].”
All 22 offensive and defensive starting positions appear set heading into the Sept. 13 opener against the New York Giants, and most of the backup slots are filled. That means a lot of hopes will be quashed Saturday when the roster is cut to 53 from 75.
“I recognize with some guys, it’s their last chance,” defensive coordinator Greg Blache said. “They’re going to be selling insurance or working at Wal-Mart. … It’s the end of the road for them. For some other guys, it’s the end of a dream. It’s a life’s dream that is gone.”
Once the starters finish their quick appearance on Thursday, five key battles will continue:
1. Third-string QB
Candidates: Colt Brennan and Chase Daniel.
First three games: Brennan completed 13 of 29 passes for 166 yards, one touchdown and three interceptions. Daniel, a rookie free agent signee, went 6-for-8 for 58 yards and two touchdowns (all vs. Pittsburgh).
Analysis: Both players will get plenty of playing time against Jacksonville. Because of his experience in the system, the job is Brennan’s to lose. The surprise with Brennan is that he didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to win the No. 2 spot - Todd Collins performed better - and struggled so much that the No. 3 job is up for grabs.
Daniel has been a surprise. He doesn’t have great size - he generously is listed at 6 feet - but appears to have a stronger arm than Brennan.
Quote: “It’s the last chance for me to go out there and leave a good mark,” Brennan said. “It’s just as big as any other game I’ve been in, but it’s probably more important because it’s the last impression you get to make.”
Candidates: Shaun Suisham and Dave Rayner.
First three games: The competition never really took off, because neither player got much work. Suisham made one of two field goal tries and one extra point, and Rayner made his only field goal attempt and four extra points. Both players have been serviceable on kickoffs.
Analysis: Zorn and special teams coach Danny Smith were pleased with both kickers in games and practices. If a competition ends in a deadlock, the nod generally goes to the incumbent - in this case, Suisham. Suisham would have to turn in an especially bad performance against the Jaguars for Rayner to seize the position.
Quote: “They’re competing hard,” Zorn said. “We hope they get some kicks in the game so that we can see more. It will be a last-minute decision as we go along because it’s not clear.”
3. The draft picks
Candidates: Brian Orakpo, Kevin Barnes, Cody Glenn, Robert Henson, Marko Mitchell, Eddie Williams and supplemental pick Jeremy Jarmon.
First three games: Orakpo, the only starter in the group, and Mitchell, a seventh-round pick at receiver, shined the most. Orakpo ranks second on the team with 12 tackles, and he has played more than any other defensive starter. Mitchell leads the Redskins with two touchdown catches and has five receptions for 61 yards.
Analysis: Last season, all 10 draft picks made the Week 1 roster, and at least seven are expected to do so this year. Among this year’s picks, Orakpo (strongside linebacker), Jarmon (defensive end) and Barnes (cornerback) are locks. Mitchell (receiver) has played his way onto the roster. Williams, a fullback, is a long shot. Glenn holds the edge over Henson at linebacker.
Quote: “This will be a big test for [Glenn] to see if he can come back and perform at the level of some of the things he had flashed to us earlier in the preseason,” Blache said. “[Rookies] tend to flash. They will flash and get you excited, and then all of a sudden they don’t sustain it because they don’t have the discipline mentally in preparation.”
4. Backup OT
Candidates: D’Anthony Batiste, Jeremy Bridges and Mike Williams.
First three games: The focus is on Williams, whom some at Redskin Park envision as a future starter at right tackle. He played against the Baltimore Ravens but missed the last two games because of an ankle injury.
Analysis: Williams almost certainly will get a roster spot (and Bridges likely will too because he also can play guard). But Williams must show he has quick-enough feet to handle an agile pass rusher and the stamina to withstand three quarters of action.
Quote: “It should be fun,” Williams said. “I’m feeling good. Everything is back in working order, and I’m about to go out there and turn it loose.”
5. Running back
Candidates: Marcus Mason, Anthony Alridge and Dominique Dorsey.
First three games: Mason picked up where he left off last August. He leads the Redskins in rushes (25), yards (87) and touchdowns (one) in his third attempt to make the 53-man roster. He’s also tied for second in receptions with five.
Analysis: With Clinton Portis being held out, Ladell Betts expected to exit early and Rock Cartwright nursing a groin injury, Mason will get the bulk of the work against Jacksonville. He’s facing three competitors: numbers, Alridge and Dorsey. Alridge is the most formidable foe because of his superior athleticism. Even if Mason has another great game, he’ll need some politicking on his behalf from the coaching staff to make the squad.
Quote: “The challenge has been put out to a lot of guys, and certainly the younger players are trying to step up and make this football team,” Zorn said.